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Culture Books


All is not as it seems

Three current novels and an oldie

The Second Mother by Jenny Milchman: For a year, abetted by her husband, Julie smothers with alcohol the rage and guilt she feels over the loss of her infant daughter. After a public meltdown, she’s ready for change. She applies for and gets a job as the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on Mercy, a remote Maine island. The change proves beneficial at first, but nothing is as it seems. When she pays extra attention to a gifted but possibly troubled student, the grandson of the island’s most influential couple, things begin to go wrong. Milchman’s fragile but courageous protagonist has to fight her own demons, take on powers she doesn’t understand, and figure out whom to trust. The book has some obscenities.

One Last Lie by Paul Doiron: Investigator Mike Bowditch learns that his mentor, retired Maine game warden pilot Charley Stevens, is missing. Bowditch sets out to find the old man. The trail takes him to Maine’s northernmost border with Canada and an old poaching case that led to the death of an undercover agent 15 years earlier. The more Bowditch discovers, the more he wonders what kinds of secrets Charley has been hiding and whether he’s really an honorable man. Doiron’s thoughtful books take place in Maine’s wilderness areas, where poachers and investment bankers rub shoulders. He writes with a naturalist’s eye for detail and an understanding of flawed and complex human nature. Several characters use crude language and occasional obscenities.

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons: Eudora Honeysett is an 85-year-old woman who has suffered many disappointments in life, which we learn about through frequent flashbacks. She’s tired, alone, and fearful of a slow decline. When she receives a brochure advertising the services of a Swiss clinic promising a painless death in a caring setting, she decides to apply. Meanwhile new neighbors move in. The precocious 10-year-old daughter lacks friends and attaches herself to Eudora. A recent widower does the same. As Eudora tries to convince the clinic that she’s ready to die, these interfering neighbors draw her back to life. Lyons has created a cast of interesting characters that show the importance of friendship for young and old.

The Fly on the Wall by Tony Hillerman: Hillerman is famous for his Navajo police procedurals. This early novel, published in 1971, features John Cotton, a cynical journalist who stumbles upon a story after another reporter plummets to his death in the state Capitol building. Cotton finds the dead journalist’s notebook and seeks to discover from cryptic notes the details of the story that led to his death. The novel provides a realistic look at investigative reporting (circa 1971 technology). It examines the idea of the detached journalist, who chases stories without regard to whom they hurt or help. Hillerman was a reporter before he turned to fiction, so the book has a gritty realism that occasionally bogs down with details of a complicated fraud scheme. Still, Hillerman provides enough predator and prey scenes to keep things moving. 

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Read all about it

Books about this year’s big news stories

The election’s over, but COVID-19 is still with us. The Price of Panic, by Douglas Axe, William Briggs, and Jay Richards, has a clear subtitle: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe (Regnery, 2020). But a pandemic is a catastrophe, and a big question concerning it is like the question of global warming: How much is man-made and how much is way beyond our control? The three authors rightly contend that local empowerment is better than the heavy hand of presidents and governors. But was it all panic? Was it all tyranny?

The tri-authors clearly point out that the big city/countryside split so evident in the presidential election made gubernatorial edicts often heavy-handed: What may have been useful in a metropolis did unnecessary economic harm in nonurban areas. One size also did not fit all regarding age: Edicts, instead of concentrating on protecting the elderly, pushed many of the young into unemployment. Andrew Cuomo’s edicts condemned to death many in New York’s nursing homes. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Gavin Newsom in California also auditioned for the role of despot-in-chief. 

This year’s race debates grew out of tragedies of the present caught on video, but The New York Times lit fires about the past through its “1619 Project.” Purportedly, the birthday of the United States was not 1776 but the year African slaves arrived in Virginia. Pulitzer people were impressed enough to give a prize to prime author Nikole Hannah-Jones. She and colleagues posed as historians until it became evident that their knowledge was headline-deep, at which point they created a “we’re just journalists” defense perimeter—but in the meantime, schools across the United States were teaching their curriculum.

Peter Wood’s 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project (Encounter, 2020) shows that if the project were a term paper, it would deserve an F. National Association of Scholars President Wood acknowledges that many textbooks two generations ago were bad, but the useful reaction of historians then has turned into overreaction: He shows how the Times’ work demonstrated “not only incompetence in handling basic facts, but also a total disregard for the importance of using reliable sources.” Wood proposes rallying local school board members to say no, creating alternative curricula, working at the state level to create legitimate American history requirements, and opposing ideological requirements for teacher licensure. 

The 1619 Project received such a favorable reception because it fit well into the identity politics that now dominates American life. Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening (Encounter, 2020) is a meditation on how purveyors of tribalism find Christianity too difficult, “for it demands that man be hard on himself and admit both his stain and his inability to remove it without Divine assistance.” The easier path is to “find a shortcut to purity by scapegoating” others. In past eras Jews or blacks often were the designated victims, and now it may be a Christian or a heterosexual white male, but “once he has been purged, someone else—a ­former innocent—must take his place.”

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Classic content

Four books on leadership

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar centers on one question: Should Brutus kill his friend, Caesar, to save the Roman Republic? Readers won’t find easy answers to that question, but they will find clear insight into the nature of leadership, politics, and human fallibility. For instance, in speeches given after Caesar’s death, Brutus appeals to the public good as he seeks to defend the republic. In contrast, Caesar’s protégé, Mark Antony, wins public sentiment with a “bread and circuses” approach. Civil war and roughly 500 years of tyranny follow, making this an eye-opening cautionary tale. For a good introduction, see the PBS Shakespeare Uncovered treatment. 

John Adams by David McCullough: First published in 2001, John Adams won author McCullough his second Pulitzer Prize. As in his other books, McCullough stays close to his source material, quoting extensively from letters, diaries, and speeches. He humanizes Adams by focusing on close relationships, including his stabilizing marriage to Abigail Adams and his strained friendship with Thomas Jefferson. One of McCullough’s qualities is his willingness to investigate unflattering truths, such as Adams’ hard-heartedness toward a wayward son and Jefferson’s treatment of his slave Sally Hemings. He does miss one important point: McCullough presents Adams as a Christian throughout the book, ignoring his later drift into Unitarianism. Even so, this biography offers a moving portrait of an extraordinary leader and American Founder. 

Leadership as an Identity by Crawford Loritts: What qualities define a Christ-centered leader? In this 200-page book, Pastor Crawford Loritts identifies four traits—brokenness, uncommon communion, servant­hood, and immediate obedience. As he explores each one, Loritts traces God’s pattern in molding Biblical heroes like Moses and David. For Loritts, godly leadership depends not on human power or accolades but assignments from God. When God wants something done, He calls leaders to accomplish His purpose. He then purifies those He calls, crushing their pride and conforming them to His image. Godly leaders serve out of that new identity, he writes: “The authority to lead is developed and cultivated not by power and prominence but rather through acts of service from a sincere humble heart.”

Persuasion by Jane Austen: Austen finished her last novel, Persuasion, just before she died in 1817. In it, she describes a woman much like herself—intelligent, warm-hearted, and disappointed early in matters of love. Unlike Austen, this heroine gets a second chance to find happiness. As the story opens, handsome Capt. Wentworth arrives home with a fortune made at sea. Years prior, Anne’s elders persuaded her to decline Wentworth’s advances. But was she right to follow their advice? In Austen’s novels, lasting happiness can’t exist apart from virtue. Anne must learn to rightly value the leadership of her elders, weighing societal convention against true maturity. Characters remain underdeveloped at times, and Austen ties up some loose ends too quickly. That said, she writes with wit and humor, providing an enjoyable read.

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